Metacircularism

Beautiful Happiness

Posted in Uncategorized by hayeah on 03.15.2008

{sec [Monster Trucks are Beautiful] [

Beauty is important to me. I never knew how to defend my sense of beauty, except with a childish tantrum, “This is my sense of beauty, and if you disagree with me, you are an idiot”. At the same time that I find certain objects beautiful, the image of a monster truck leaping over flatten cars imposes itself upon my mind.

I am forced to remember that there are people who sincerely find /that/ beautiful. I am not just saying monster trucks can be entertaining. More than entertaining, they can be, to some people, genuinely beautiful.

This realization is distressing. If Beauty can mean monster trucks to some people, does it mean my sense of Beauty is as stupid as theirs?

What can we say about competing senses of beauty?

On the one hand, is a hopeless aesthetic relativism, that their beauty is as legitimate as mine. On the other, equally unpalatable, is to give up the sense of beauty altogether, and in so doing, I can avoid attributing the label “Beauty” upon monster trucks. But at the same time, I lose my ability to say that the things I hold dear are beautiful.

If we cannot judge one sense of beauty better than another, it seems that either beauty is arbitrary, or that it doesn’t exist.

]}

{sec [Apples and Oranges] [

Of course, no real aesthete would be happy with this state of the affair. It can’t be that Beauty is only in the eyes of the beholders.

So some people are inclined to reduce the notion of beauty into a quip. One common thing we hear is that beauty is what’s left after you’ve taken away everything ugly.

I sympathize with this view. And it is one sense of beauty I seize upon. There /is/ perfection to be found in taking away everything unnecessary. But it is only one sense.

It leaves us puzzled when we stand in awe in front of La Sagrada Família. Here is a monstrous sense of beauty, to which we add and add. Here is no simple elegance, but a ornate piety that demands every last bit of your attention be filled with Holy Iconographies.

If we learn anything from the innumerable recipes for beauty, it is that even if there might be criteria for its recognition and production, there’s no one sense of it.

That there are different senses of beauty is perhaps no reason to despair. We can say a cup of tea is beautiful in its calm ordinariness, and the highway system is beautiful in its bustling liveliness. But there need not be a unifying principle behind different visions of beauty.

Just as we should be glad that we can fall in love with different kinds of people, we should be glad that there are different Gardens of Eden. The paradise may be flowing with milk and honey, or filled with steamy, wet sex.

]}

{sec [Beautiful Happinesses] [

Alain de Botton’s book, “The Architecture of Happiness”, contains the most lucid discussion of Beauty I ever read. De Botton is not one disposed to facile characterizations. Rather than reducing Beauty to a set of axioms, de Botton recognizes the full complexity of it, and takes you on a journey.

Beauty, according to de Botton, is a perspective. It is the cumulation of personal values you hold dear. There’s no judgement of beauty, except in the context of everything else that you stand for. Whether you subscribe to the scientific asceticism of the modernists, or the ornate piety of the medievalists, depends on your belief in the ideal way of living. How you imagine a good life decides your sense of beauty.

Beauty, is your vision of happiness. Hence the title of his book.

{q [
The building we admire are ultimately those which, in a variety of ways, extol values we think worthwhile– which refer, that is, whether through their materials, shapes, or colours, to such legendarily positive qualities as friendliness, kindness, subtlety, strength and intelligence. Our sense of beauty and our understanding of the nature of a good life are intertwined. We seek associations of peace in our bedrooms, metaphors for generosity and harmony in our chairs, and an air of honesty and forthrightness in our taps. We can be moved by a column that meets a roof with grace, by worn stone steps that hint at wisdom and by a Georgian doorway that demonstrates playfulness and courtesy in its fanlight window.
]}

By casting Beauty in terms of human values, we can discuss the merits of arts just as we can any other human qualities of frugality, stinginess; splendor, vanity; serenity, apathy; power, cruelty. De Botton, alluding to Stendhal, highlights the rich varieties of Beauty.

{q [
But because Stendhal was sensitive to the complexity of our requirements for happiness, he wisely refrained from specifying any particular type of beauty. As individuals we may, after all, find vanity no less attractive than graciousness, or aggression as intriguing as respect. Through his use of the capacious word “happiness”, Stendhal allowed for the wide range of goals which people have pursued. Understanding that mankind would always be conflicted about its visual tastes as about its ethical ones, he noted, “There are as many styles of beauty as there are visions of happiness.”
]}

Even though we should be glad that there are different visions of beauty we can submerge in, there are other visions we can, and should, hate. We can say that because we prefer quiet reflection over glitz and pomposity, so even acknowledging that Paris Hilton and monster trucks are in some ways beautiful to some people, we can still say they are stupid.

]}

{sec [Ugliness All Around] [

I love what de Botton says about artistic objects that they are small instances of (our sense of) perfections in a fundamentally uncaring, flawed world. We can’t change the world (much) for the better, but at least, we can find a good armchair to sink into.

We recognize the unfortunate imperfections, but are embolden by /our/ own little corners of the world. This is a sensible pluralistic happiness, without the danger of ideological fanaticism. We recognize the impossibility, and the injustice, of imposing our vision of happiness upon others. Perhaps we don’t want to recreate the world in our own image, as Lenin, Hitler, Mao wanted to.

We should learn to be satisfied with our small pieces of perfections, and let others enjoy theirs (even to our own distress). Yet Beauty in the small is hard to appreciate. How can we take seriously something so local, circumstantial, ephemeral, irrelevant, and useless?

It is not easy to appreciate Beauty in all its human frailties. We don’t like the idea that things we hold dear will pass away. As such, we are irresistibly drawn to claims of Beauty as divine, encompassing, universal, or absolute.

With our eyes set so high, we become angry, because we think that the world failed to meet up to our ideal. Here is a beautiful brick house in the midst of urban slum. But rather than being invigorated by its humble beauty, we curse at the urban sprawl. We shake our fists at the cardboard boxes that are choking everything else out.

Why is everything so ugly? We ask.

Yet we forget…

In the midst of so much ugliness is something beautiful.

To realize that beauty is the exception, and still be glad in what there is of it, requires an emotional maturity. De Botton says,

{q [
…after coming up against some of the sterner setbacks which bedevil emotional and political life, we may well arrive at a more charitable assessment of the significance of beauty– of islands of perfection, in which we can find an echo of an ideal which we once hoped to lay a permanent claim to. Life may have to show itself to us in some of its authentically tragic colours before we can begin to grow properly visually responsive to its subtler offerings, whether in the form of a tapestry or a Corinthian column, a slate tile or a lamp. It tends not to be young couples in love who stop to admire a weathered brick wall or the descent of a banister towards a hallway, a disregard of such circumscribed beauty being a corollary of an optimistic belief in the possibility of attaining a more visceral, definitive variety of happiness.
]}

I am hopelessly ideological. And I strain for that “visceral, definitive variety of happiness”. Yes. With unbounded vision of greatness, how can I be satisfied with a chair? But it hurts me with so much disappointment, resentment, and intolerance. I wish I can find some of that emotional maturity in me. De Botton goes on,

{q [
We may need to have made an indelible mark on our lives, to have married the wrong person, pursued an unfulfilling career into middle age or lost a loved one before architecture can being to have any perceptible impact on us, for when we speak of being ‘moved’ by a building, we allude to a bitter-sweet feeling of contrast between the noble qualities written into a structure and the sadder wider reality within which we know them to exist. A lump rises in our throat at the sight of beauty from an implicit knowledge that happiness it hints at is the exception.
]}

Having read it many times, it still sends a chill down my spine.

]}

{sec [Lisp] [

Lisp is beautiful.

And I wondered what this says about what my cherished values are, and what my vision of happiness is.

I don’t want to argue that Lisp is powerful. Either you /believe/ it, or you don’t. If you have to ask, then you don’t know, and most likely, can’t know. It’s like Jazz.

So let me just say, Lisp is beautiful. I’ll even agree with you that Lisp is more or less useless, and that you can do amazing work in (oh noes!) Java or Perl. But Lisp is beautiful in ways Java, Perl, Ruby, Python, C, whatever, never can be.

How is Lisp beautiful? The convention wisdom seems to be that of the major lisp dialects, Scheme, Common Lisp, and Emacs Lisp, Scheme is the most beautiful, but (arguably) not as practical as Common Lisp. And Emacs Lisp is just plain ugly with its 1970 backwardness.

Nikodemus Siivola (I don’t even know who he is!) compares Scheme and Common Lisp, that,

{q [
Schemer: “Buddha is small, clean, and serious.”
Lispnik: “Buddha is big, has hairy armpits, and laughs.”
]}

This embodies the belief that the beauty of Lisp has something to do with its minimalism. The fact that a meta-interpreter for Lisp can be printed on half a page, and is “the kernel of all languages”, is taken to be the grounding claim of Lispy power, and by implication, beauty.

So those seeking beauty asks how to get maximum power out of minimal parts. Scheme’s modus operandi is to see how far lambda can take you. And Paul Graham’s Arc is about finding the smallest set of axioms, and the shortest path, to a practical Lisp.

This vision of Lisp is that of a crystalline consistency extending outward. Lisp all the way in, and Lisp all the way out. This /is/ a pleasing vision of elegance and simplicity. We are heartened, because despite the riotous complexity, we know that deep in the core, it’s all but half a page.

With this sense of Lispy beauty, I profess my love for it whenever I can, and feel sad that the whole world is not Lisp.

]}

{sec [Ugly Lisp is Beautiful] [

Recently, I realized that Lisp is beautiful to me in another way. A way that resonates with my vision of happiness, and reflects better who I am.

It is a vision of hope.

I admire Scheme, but I don’t feel like there’s anything I can do for Scheme. It is perfect in its own ways. Same goes with Haskell, with its imposing austerity, I can only fall on my knees in awe. But again, there’s not much I can do for Haskell. It is perfect.

What I’ve found, is that hope feeds on imperfections. For me, the dominant sense of beauty arising from Emacs rests on the fact that that it is so ugly! It is so ugly, you can’t help it but to do something about it.

And you can! This is incredibly empowering.

The imperfections are there to challenge you. Imperfections are not braced with a stoic resignation of “what is, is”. Imperfections ask you to be better. Even as you are tortured by the particular stupidities of a Lisp system (CL, Emacs, Smalltalk, Erlang), if you have a vision of something better, you go ahead and do it!

The saying that if you don’t like it, you can change it, is more often than not, moot, as far as open source is concerned. I am unhappy with KDE, but there’s simply no way I am going to do anything about it. But within Lisp, the power in your hand to create a paradise is not an empty promise.

With Lisp, you know perfection is a few macros away. Even if you can’t reach perfection, you can inch toward it, or at least, make life a little more comfortable in one particular instance, so life as a whole becomes bearable.

What Lisp is, then, is a trust in you, the lisp programmer, to create a better world. Even though the world fundamentally sucks, there’s hope in changing the tiny bit surrounding you for the better, at least for the duration while you are here.

This is my vision of happiness, and my youthful optimism.

]}

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